MONSTRUM Special Presentation: "EXHUMED: A History of Zombies" TV Episode Review

Written by Karin Crighton

Premiered on PBS

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Directed by David Schulte
Written and presented by Emily Zarka
2020, Not Rated
Premiered on October 30, 2020

Dr. Emily Zarka

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You scratch your head, sure you heard the story before. It had something to do with voodoo right? In Haiti. Using a ritual, or maybe a venom from that insect you read about. Ants? Wasps? 

Dr. Emily Zarka is going to tell you the true story, in all its real-life horror.

PBS’ episode of Monstrum, “EXHUMED: A History of Zombies” is exactly how storytelling in our new world needs to look and sound. Exhaustively researched and entertaining, it delivers us the origins of zombie lore and its applications in today’s sociology with an unflinching look back from where it was stolen.

When Africans were enslaved and delivered to Haiti in the 16th century, they brought vestiges of their varied culture. Coming together, a new religion was developed: Haitian Vodou, with origins in the West Africa Vodou, nestled with the indigenous faith in Haiti. It was disguised by incorporating Christian elements from their colonizing forces to protect the worshippers. Much was demanded of this new Vodou; one was only expected to survive 10 years after arriving in Haiti and it needed to be a way to feel empowered within a community.

When Haitians came to America to start new lives after abolition, Vodou came with them. New Orleans became an epicenter of culture with the large gatherings in Congo Square. From there, Louisiana Voodoo evolved. And in Voodoo, the zombie is an entirely different story.

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As stories and books expanded into early film, zombies were used as an avenue to titillate the audience; the virginal ingenue was now touchable and fallible through magical means. It was also a quick and easy way to associate blackness with "otherness" and thereby dangerous. As eras pass, the zombie-creating force evolved to reflect the changing fears of the terms, including UFOs, technology, Nazis, and Russian infiltration.

Then came Romero. His film Night of the Living Dead is the blueprint by which all further movies would be made, arriving with a black leading actor during the Civil Rights movement and premiering shortly after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. The ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s all contribute their fears and vilification of Vodou and Haiti via Zombie movies.

As we move on through the years, it’s hard for Dr. Zarka to accept that we now use zombies as satirization of our own mundane lives in movies like Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead, when it came from the decimation of West African culture through slavery and colonization. Having no awareness before of just how deep the roots of zombie lore run, I understand that discouragement.

While zombies remain a perfect way to give voice to our unsaid fears, to forget where it came from would be an enormous loss. The present and the future are direct results of the past we created, however horrific it is to face.

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Episode: 5 Star Rating Cover
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